MISSOULA — Sports around the country took a backseat this week.
Baseball games were moved. Football games were canceled. Arenas where basketball games are held turned from playing venues to evacuee shelters.
This week in Houston has been bigger than sports. This week has been about survival.
That rings true for University of Montana football’s Caleb Hill. The transfer quarterback from Brenham, Texas — a town just two counties northwest of Houston — has deep connections to the widespread devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey in the Gulf Coast.
“Football hasn't been the most important thing for me this past week or so,” Hill said. “Because when your family’s going through that, you’re definitely thinking about them and making sure they’re all right.
"The first thing I do when I get out (of practice) is go check my phone just to make sure I didn’t get any texts or missed calls from anybody back home.”
Hill said that his hometown received 15 to 18 inches of rain since Harvey made landfall. And the wind, according to his mom, was incredibly strong as tornadoes touched down 30 minutes away.
Even with all the hardships at home this week, quarterbacks coach Andrew Selle said Hill is dealing with the situation well.
"I check in with him every day, just to see how things are going” Selle said. “He's a very smart kid, understands the magnitude with what's going on down there. ... It obviously hits home for him and this is his first fall away from home. To be here and see what's going on down there, I know it's a lot on him.”
The only damage Hill's house received due to the storm is a leak in the roof.
“I’m definitely not gonna complain about a leak when there’s a lot of damage in Houston,” Hill said. “A lot of my friends, their houses are flooded and damaged. I’m very happy and thankful and blessed that my family is OK.”
One of the things that worried Hill the most was that his dad wasn’t home when Hurricane Harvey struck. He was working a job in New Mexico, leaving just his mom, 16-year-old sister and 11-year-old brother in the storm's path.
“I really thank God that he kept them safe,” Hill said.
Several of Hill’s high school and junior college teammates have been sending him photos of the destruction around Houston and Beaumont, Texas.
“There’s just water everywhere,” Hill said. “Several of them were actually out in boats.”
Hill isn’t the only Grizzly with connections to that area of Texas.
Montana football strength and conditioning coach Matt Nicholson is a 2010 graduate of the University of Houston. He lived in Houston for eight years before coaching linebackers at Colorado School of Mines with UM head coach Bob Stitt.
Nicholson still has family in Houston, including his son Ryan.
“I've been checking in on him,” Nicholson said of keeping in contact with his son. “They're on higher ground right now. He probably doesn't mind too much because he has no school so he's just playing video games and there's no football practice. He doesn't seem to affected based on my conversations with him on FaceTime."
And Nicholson knows what it’s like. During his playing days, Nicholson and his team had to evacuate during Hurricane Ike in 2008.
“This one’s a lot worse,” Nicholson said. “It’s tough to see. You see certain landmarks and things that are all underwater and you know there's gonna be a lengthy rebuilding process. People are losing everything. ... The coolest part to me is watching how everybody is really stepping up. Everybody's trying to help.
"You can send out a tweet and say 'Prayers for Houston' or whatever but … there are people down there that are just struggling to stay alive and get their families safe and get to higher ground.”
Hill said he’s leaned on his team, especially Nicholson, this week.
“These guys and coaches and my teammates have done a good job of asking me and praying over my family and sending their regards,” Hill said. “It helps when you have people here that are caring for you, especially Nicholson because he's the only one from home.
“Every day I ask him how his family is and he asks me everyday how my family is. I could tell he's genuinely looking out for me because he understood that Brenham was close to Houston and he's from that area too. We're asking each other how both of our families are doing."
University of Houston basketball coach Kelvin Sampson sat at home on Saturday watching the news.
The former Montana Tech coach saw family after family be evacuated in the city that he’s called home since 2011.
"Words can't describe the devastation and carnage,” Sampson told 406 MT Sports in a phone call on Wednesday. “There are entire neighborhoods under water. Roads that we travel everyday are underwater. We've had almost 50 inches of rain in five days. It's pretty tough.”
Sampson said of all the families being evacuated, one woman and her children stood out to him.
“She had a first grader on her hip and another little boy on the other hip. And when the reporter was talking to her, (she said) the only thing they have left in this world is the clothes on their backs and each other,” Sampson said. “That really struck a chord with me.”
While Sampson was watching the news, he received hundreds of messages from his friends and colleagues around the country.
The one thing they all asked him: “What can we do to help?”
He knew he had to do something, so he got thinking. After calling his son, the two decided to challenge coaches around the country to send 20 t-shirts and 10 pairs of shoes to the University of Houston. From there, they’d get everything distributed to those in need.
“I have a great platform here as a college basketball coach,” Sampson said. “I've done this for a long time, obviously know a lot of people and so we came up with the idea that we're gonna issue a challenge. I wrote (the message in the Tweet) on the back of an envelope on a letter here on the counter. I just wrote it down and I typed it out and sent it to my daughter and said, 'send this tweet out.’”
It immediately went viral, thanks to the help of national media members in Jeff Goodman, Jon Rothstein and Jay Bilas.
Sampson’s Tweet has more than 6,500 retweets, 8,500 likes and 600 replies. Schools that have sent gear to Houston consist of UCLA, Washington State, Oklahoma State, Kansas State, Duke, Mississippi State, Nebraska, Ohio State, Kentucky and more than 600 other programs from high school to NAIA to NCAA Division I.
"Being able to get this started and give these coaches an avenue of which to help, it brings the best out in people,” Sampson said. “Through conflict and tough times, you find out what people are made of. And I'm really proud of my coaching colleagues. ... We're all coaches, we're all human beings. We see a tragedy, we see catastrophe and we want to help.”
Sampson said the support of Montana Tech and people there, including Joe Kasperick and others meant the world to him.
"All my brothers and sisters in Montana (deserve) a special thank you," Sampson said.
Another program that sent gear down?
The University of Montana.
Nicholson saw Sampson's Tweet on Monday and knew he had to do something. When he got home, he packed up many of his own t-shirts to send.
"Anything that we can do to help benefit people that need it a lot more than us right now is, it's people helping people," Nicholson said. "I think that's what it's all about. These people just want to do stuff for the greater good of everyone. I think that's such an awesome thing to see. I think that's what our country is all about. That's what makes us Americans."
The gesture meant a lot to Hill as well.
"It touched me," Hill said. "I even tweeted, 'I love my team.' I'm the only Texas guy here. I know even if I wasn't here they would have helped out and that is what's so special to me. Just another reason on why I picked Montana. I know it may have been my only offer, but I definitely think there's a reason why this was my only offer."